Antarctica, the coldest desert in the world
“Team, we are turning back. We can climb in complete white-out, extreme cold or high winds. But when you have all three elements against you it’s safer to turn around” said Mike, our guide and
seven times Vinson summitter. It was soul destroying, quite frankly. We had all been working so hard with little rest and were all pushed to the very limit of our bodies. Now standing
at the Rescue Point, despite almost being able to touch the summit, we didn’t argue with Mike. It was -50C with windchill and we knew it was the right decision. Hungry for the summit but completely knackered, we turned our backs to the hiding peak of Mt Vinson and headed back to High Camp.
The expedition didn’t have a brilliant start. Our team, another large group and ALE climbers were flown to the ice Wednesday 26 Non in a giant Russian cargo plane I spotted a couple of days earlier when I landed at Punta Arenas airport in Chile. We were all buzzing with excitement during the 4.5h flight, especially when we saw the announcement on the large screen: “BE ADVISED UNION GLACIER WEATHER WIND 180/ 15G 22kt TEMP -15C”
We were pretty hopeful that after landing on the ice and taken to Union Glacier, we’d be able to fly straight to Vinson Base Camp. The other teams did, sadly by the time it was our turn the weather got bad and we were told to stay put and wait for further news. And that’s exactly what we did over the next three days. I spent that time reading some fantastic books and running around the camp as a pathetic attempt to exercise. On Saturday 29 November, two Twin Otters left Union Glacier with the ten of us. The 35min flight provided some magnificent views of the Ellsworth Mountains, a 360km long chain of mountains (discovered in 1935 by Lincoln Ellsworth).
When we landed at Vinson Base Camp, it hit home where we were and what we were about to do. Away from the delicious food at UG, the comfort of your own bed,
just mind blowingly beautiful landscape. We spent the rest of the evening cutting out the dining room in the snow and setting up tents. You could hear a few giggles from the toilet area, it had a view to die for!
The 24 hour day light in Antarctica can really mess with your mind and body. Having longer days certainly helped during the climb but when your aching body needs rest ‘at night’, you are in a world of trouble. The 3-men tents provided were just enough for 2 people and the duffels/ rucksacks. My teammate Susmita, from Nepal and I had our matt rolled out, inflatable matt as the next insulating layer then the sleeping bag carefully laid on the top. Both sleepingbags next to each other so the little body warmth we had could transfer. On our other sides, we stacked up the bags to stop us rolling off the matts and into the frozen solid material of the tent. My toes and head touched the front and the back of the tent. But this was just the sleeping set up, sleeping was another matter all together. Once you jammed all the layers, climbing boot liners, climbing boots, camera equipment, batteries, two water bottles inside the sleeping bag and you managed to feel moderately comfortable after zipping up, you had two choices. Keep the head out and brief the painfully cold air in or tuck yourself inside the sleeping bag/ cover your face. To keep the light out, I used an eye patch that nicely froze on my face every night so then just ended up chucking my black gore-tex trousers over to keep the light out. Battling with this sounds rather silly, when you’re on an expedition in such an extreme and hostile environment, every minute you spend resting matter. Sleeping was clearly a bonus.
We carried to Camp 1/ Low Camp the following day, taking camp and group load as well as personal items. This was the first test how we operated as a team and climbed as individuals. The route only took about 4 hours, leaving the Base camp we ascended on a hill deep into the mountains, huge crevasse fields on both sides but the magnificent view of the white peaks surrounding. We had occasional breaks to drink water and grab munchies, sitting on the back of our rucksacks with our sleds pulled to the side of the track, we rested our bodies for a couple of minutes before cracking on. We returned to base camp knowing the following day would be harder, moving up with all our gear. Little we knew that moving up to Camp 1 also meant building a fort then setting up the tents inside. Digging up snow for the dining tent big enough for 10 people and cooking facilities also seemed like a challenge but we all worked together like a group of ants and got the job done. Spending the night at Low Camp, you could certainly feel the difference in temperature and we weren’t even at High Camp when we were promised seriously low temperatures and extreme winds. I was really pleased with my strong climbing and positive attitude the previous days and was sooo ready for the carry to Camp 2 / High Camp. The following morning at breakfast, Mike announced that it would be an ‘active rest day’, meaning half of the group will carry personal and group gear to the top of the fixed lines, the other would turn around after the first break.
“And who’s going up with you?” I asked Mike. I was very pleased Mike picked me to carry with the four of them, I couldn’t wait to test myself on the fixed lines. The slope looked intimidating from Low
Camp but the higher we climbed the more adrenalin rushed through my veins, and getting to the top with a heavy load was a relief and a tiny success for this girl. Suddenly thought about all those cold & wet evenings, weeks of raining in London up & down between Worple Road and Wimbledon Village, carrying a giant expedition rucksack, sipping water from the Camelbak and not stopping, like a lunatic. The whole group moved up to High Camp the following day and I couldn’t have felt better, stronger and determined. There was just a couple of days between us and the top…
© copyright 2021 by Alexandra Nemeth